Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 October 2019

Yes, an aurora. But this is the Aurora Australis, not the better known Aurora Borealis. Read about our tour to see the Aurora Australis, immediately below.

Good morning

It is great to be back, after what has been quite a while since a Travel Insider newsletter appeared in your Friday in-box.  I’ve been busy with the two tours that ran back-to-back in September, but it has been a great sort of being busy, with wonderful experiences and delightful groups in both Scotland and France.

I again point out that while the newsletters went on hiatus for several weeks, my Twitter posting continued more or less as normal.  It is possible to squeeze in a few minutes here or there to find and share stories on Twitter, but when on tour, it is not possible to be able to find eight or more hours of uninterrupted concentration to assemble a newsletter, building on the stories earlier tweeted.

If you don’t like Twitter, I get that.  There is a way to get daily doses of my tweets that does not involve using Twitter at all – you can sign up with the Ketchup newsletter service for my @TheTvlInsider twitter feed.

Astonishingly, the weather was better in Scotland than France.  I even got slightly sunburned on one day in Scotland, but never ran a similar risk in France.  This was surprising because at least in theory, there should have been something like 10° (F) of extra heat in France compared to Scotland, but weather is always a fickle sort of thing.

Everything went very smoothly on the Scotland tour, although our two night stop in the lovely tiny town of Tobermory was marred somewhat because the town’s main restaurant had been destroyed in an early morning fire a couple of months earlier, changing the town from having plenty of restaurant and bar services for visitors to making both a scarce commodity.  Fortunately, no-one went hungry; and yet again, one of the regular comments by the people on the tour was to express surprise at how good the food was.

At the risk of upsetting the French, I’ll go further than that and say the food (and service!), even in small towns in Scotland, was generally better and more varied than in some of the larger French cities we visited.  Sure, there were possibilities to spend substantial sums on high-end restaurants and food, but for regular priced eating, the choices were dismayingly limited, and I don’t think I saw a single vegetable for over a week – just fries and salads, usually alongside a very disappointing steak.  One restaurant’s excuse, when several of us all complained about our steaks, was to say that the cut of meat that was the only steak on offer on their menu was known to be one of the worst cuts of meat possible, which begged the question “If that is the worst type of steak, why is it the only steak choice on your menu?”.  (The cut was entrecôte, which is another name for ribeye, to my mind one of the best cuts of meat.)

But the French tour had plenty of positive to go alongside the dreary food and the sometimes ridiculously overpriced beer (€12 or more for a 500 ml/17 ounce drink).  Some great wine at amazing values (in the supermarkets, not so much in the restaurants of course), incredible old castles and chateaus, beautiful historic towns and stately cities, and gorgeous landscapes and seascapes/coastline.  Bordeaux in particular is looking better and better every time I visit, and I plan a one-week Bordeaux based land-cruise for next year.

Which brings me to – oh yes – tours for next year.  This week I’ve an NZ tour in March to share; next week I’ll offer up a May tour.

The New Zealand tour is a totally new tour that I hope you’ll be as excited about as I am.  It has a very distinctive theme to it – the Aurora Australis.  Of course you know all about the Aurora Borealis; the Aurora Australis is its southern twin, and New Zealand is a great place to see it from.  Indeed, NZ is a better place to see the Southern Lights than Iceland is to see the Northern Lights, and dare I add that there is more to see, do, and enjoy in NZ during the days than in Iceland, too!

Please see the attached teaser about the tour, and then go visit the main tour page.

Of special note is that I’m offering a very short term early sign up discount.  Sign up by the end of Monday 14 October, and I’ll give you a $100 per person special early signup bonus.

Signing up quickly – whether by Monday for the discount, or at any other time – is truly important.  Because March is “next year” it seems further away than it is.  Queenstown in particular is already nearly full for March – Expedia warned me that the town is over 75% full for the nights we are staying there.  I’ve “scientifically” chosen what I believe to be the very best days to be there in terms of probability of seeing the lights, so can’t change the dates, so it really is important to consider this tour now and let me know as soon as you conveniently can if you’d like to come.

Talking about Iceland, I got to spend an unexpected “bonus” night there on the way back from France.  The airport closed due to strong winds; my inbound flight was one of the last accepted, and all outbound flights were cancelled until the next day.  As you can imagine, the airport was a total zoo, with people everywhere, and you’ll be unsurprised to learn that even though it seems that wind-related closures are not uncommon, Icelandair was woefully unprepared to handle the surge of people with missed flights and suffering forced overnights.

I got back home the next day; my bags took another two days to catch up.  Oh – I didn’t see any Aurora Borealis.

What else?  It is sometimes hard to pick up the pace again after several weeks away – does one limit oneself only to the last week, or does one allow events from previous weeks also to flow through?

  • Several Weeks of Continued Bad News for Boeing
  • Alitalia Unions Strike Because Their Airline is Failing, Yet Again
  • Do You Know Who Used to be the Largest Airplane Manufacturer, Way Back?
  • I’m From the (Californian) Government and I’m Here to Save the Planet, One Hotel at a Time
  • Another Electric Car Disappointment
  • A New Amazon Tablet – Much the Same as the Old One
  • And Lastly This Week….

Several Weeks of Continued Bad News for Boeing

For sure, there’s still a steady flow of bad news for Boeing, and they not only have their new 737 MAX planes still grounded, but one in every 20 of their previous generation of 737s have also now been grounded pending urgent repairs to newly discovered cracks on their wing/body connections.

The 737 MAX return to service date seems to have slipped yet again.  Boeing hasn’t said as much, but now that it is almost mid October, it seems clear that their timeline – getting a final proposal to the FAA to signoff on in September – is not happening as planned.  Confirming this was American’s announcement earlier this week that it was again delaying their rescheduling of 737 MAX flights; and they are now hoping to return them to the schedule from January 16.

Boeing had earlier said it expected to get approval from the FAA for a return to flight in October, clearly AA doesn’t see that as happening, and with the final application yet to be submitted to the FAA, AA is wise to extend its 737 MAX freeze still further.

Southwest pilots are suing Boeing for their loss of more than $100 million in earnings due to not being able to fly 737 MAX planes.  But Delta pilots (DL has no 737 MAX planes) are sitting smugly, getting double-pay overtime for flying more flights to make up for shortages of WN/UA/AA 737 flights.

Two thoughts about that.  First, double-time rather than time-and-a-half (or even just more straight time) is very generous.  Secondly, “overtime” is a strange concept when you consider the average pilot’s normal hours are seldom even 20 hours a week.  Who reading this wouldn’t also love to get a generous six-figure salary for working half-time hours, and to get double-rate overtime if their hours were to increase over half-time.

I’m surprised to see that only now are there starting to be calls for some senior level resignations at Boeing.  Needless to say, there’s absolutely no sign of such calls being heeded.  Furthermore, many of the people with most responsibility for the 737 failures and problems are no longer at Boeing.  But the more the delay in returning the plane to service grows, the more that responsibility passes from people back when the plane was first approved to the people now who seem unable to complete the recertification process.

A new whistleblower has more damning revelations about Boeing’s approach to safety on the 737.  The Seattle Times has a typically excellent report here.  And the Wall St Journal reports that the 737 used to have some safety systems that the MAX version omitted.

Meanwhile, it seems the FAA may have misled Congress when it tried to spin an earlier whistleblower’s claims about Boeing’s 737 program more positively than it should have done.  Why is the FAA going out of its way to be so pro-Boeing?

Most of all though, here’s the article that should be top of your reading pile.  A lengthy account and damning in its detail about Boeing’s switch in corporate culture from “safety first” to “profit first”.

Boeing continues to push the “It wasn’t our fault, it was the pilots’ fault” line whenever it can find someone willing to listen and repeat it.  While I’m the first to agree that many – maybe even most – pilots today no longer have the basic fundamental flying skills that pilots had a generation ago, that’s an open secret that everyone knows.  It is totally Boeing’s responsibility to make their planes capable of being flown by the pilots who end up, for better or worse, certified to fly them and in the cockpits.

With all this ongoing 737 negativity, it is perhaps no surprise that Boeing is seeking greener pastures elsewhere.  But, really – choosing to invest $20 million into the Richard Branson “Virgin Galactic” company hardly seems a prudent piece of diversification.  About the only thing in common between the two companies – apart from recent fatal crashes – is an inability to meet their self-imposed deadlines.

Virgin Galactic, which Branson had most recently said would be sending him aloft to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing back in July, now is saying it “still feels good” about starting operations “next year”.  I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve been expecting to start operations “next year”, but, as the saying goes, “tomorrow never comes”.

One last thing about Boeing.  I came across an old article this week about the B-52 and re-engining air planes in general.  It was a fascinating discussion of how a “simple” seeming process of replacing old engines on a plane with newer better engines is seldom simple, and often either opens new cans of worms, or provides no practical benefit because other factors are limiting the airplane’s performance, no matter what sort of engines it has.

In simple terms, the 737 MAX problems all can be traced back to the latest re-engineering of the venerable 737 airframe.  What a shame that the people who did that were unaware of this article; if they’d read it, just maybe they might have reconsidered their plans.

It is a great read.  Recommended.

Alitalia Unions Strike Because Their Airline is Failing, Yet Again

Alitalia is the airline that refuses to die.  Although EU regulations make it illegal for governments to subsidize businesses, somehow, mysteriously, Alitalia continues to get money from somewhere to keep it alive and aloft.

But its underlying problems – an inefficient operation and ridiculous routes – remain in place, ensuring the airline can not and will not become profitable.  And its unions, terrified that new productivity and work requirements imposed on them by possible new owners might see their members forced to actually work for a change, are pre-emptively stating their case to preserve the status quo the only way they know – by going on strike.

The negative side-effects of their strike – still more losses for their employer, and still more defections from frustrated would be passengers – doesn’t seem to have occurred to them, or, if it did, doesn’t seem to worry them.  And perhaps that is appropriate, because, after all, they work for the airline that will not die.

Details here.

Do You Know Who Used to be the Largest Airplane Manufacturer, Way Back?

The first plane I ever flew on was a Vickers Viscount, the second a DC3, and the third (and fourth and fifth and sixth and so on) was a Fokker F.27 Friendship (also known as the Fairchild F.27 Friendship).

I never liked the plane all that much – compared to the 737s which Air New Zealand also operated domestically, way back then, the Friendship was very noisy, much slower, and flew at a lower altitude in the middle of the rough air that covers so much of NZ, rather than at a higher altitude above the rough air.

But, in a manner akin to the DC3 that it generally replaced, it was a solid and stolid workhorse of a plane.  Unglamorous but functional.  Reliable, easy to fly, and undemanding in terms of runway length and services.

It was unfortunate when Fokker failed in 1996.

I came across an interesting article about the company this week, including the point that in the 1920s, it was the largest manufacturer of aircraft in the world.  Who knew?

I’m From the (Californian) Government and I’m Here to Save the Planet, One Hotel at a Time

I’m still astonished that California’s approach to preventing power-line induced wild-fires is not to fix the power lines but to simply turn off the power to millions of its citizens, for unknown stretches of time, because it is windy and dry.  Of course the fact that its utilities refuse to accept any liability for cutting the power to their subscribers definitely makes this easier than maintaining their power lines, but it is sad when the most developed country in the world can’t guarantee essential electricity to its citizens.

But while the Golden State’s legislators see nothing wrong with this, they have been very busy saving the planet – they have banned hotels from giving guests single-use shampoos and other amenities.  Containers must now hold at least 6 oz of product, which presumably is more than most hotels would be willing to give per guest.  Details here.

Two points of concern.  First, is it really compatible with the concept of a free society and personal freedom to have governments telling hotels what size amenities they can give guests?  Conceivably a government might impose an “environmental tax” on small sized products, but to ban them outright?  That’s a slippery slope, and currently it seems to be headed in an alarming direction – we may all be forced to use nasty industrial grade sandpapery style toilet paper if environmental extremists have their way.

Secondly, every element of travel is “environmentally impactful”.  Why go after the small container of shampoo at a hotel after a person has flown several thousand miles to get to the hotel?  If people are going to obsess over such things, why not attack the very big things, rather than the tiny little ones?  Will we soon be banned from getting daily hotel towel changes?  Will the size and weight of a towel be limited?  And so on – where does it stop?

The answer to that question of course is the people who are now gleefully forcing us to use awful bulk liquid soap instead of nice small bars of soap have every intention of working their way up the chain, but they’re using a “boiling frog” strategy.  They are starting off with small things that no-one really cares much about, but do not believe for a minute they will stop after getting single use toiletries banned.  Next the 6oz minimum size will become 12oz.  And then there will be other restrictions and controls on other discretionary and “quality of life” non-essentials, including, absolutely for sure, toilet paper.  Maybe they’ll require us to use both sides of each sheet?

By imposing these restrictions stealthily, little by little, they hope we’ll never realize that all these small changes are adding up to some huge fundamental big changes in our lives and lifestyles, just like the frog allegedly never thinks to jump out of a pot of slowly heating water.

There is a fundamental issue here – are we willing to destroy our quality of life in the hope that doing so may “save the planet” – a planet that may or may not be at risk in the first place?  The extremists wish us to indeed do that.  Whether it be restricting our heating and cooling, the style of our lights at home, or our travel, or our eating of meat, or anything else, it is all fair game to them.

Meanwhile, no-one is brave enough to note the continued enormous increases in emissions of all kinds in China and India with environnmental impacts that are so much more tangible than disposable shampoo bottles and plastic straws.  No-one is brave enough to point out that population control would allow a stable population to maintain a high quality of life, and that the environmental impacts, such as they may be, are in direct proportion to our growing populations.  Bizarrely and illogically, it seems accepted that people have an absolute right to have an unlimited number of children, but not a right to enjoy a high quality of life.

Another Electric Car Disappointment

Sir James Dyson, the guy who invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner that revolutionized vacuum cleaner design/performance, has been banging on for several years about developing an electric car.  His electric car was sometimes promised to be based on a new type of battery technology that he was also developing, although sometimes he conceded that his first generation of cars would have to use current style batteries.

Last year he made the strange decision to base the planned car factory in Singapore.  Car factories require a lot of land, and a reasonably large number of employees.  Singapore – a great country for sure – is very short of both, and both are extremely expensive.  It is a great country for “knowledge workers” who can sit in high rise buildings and justify their necessarily high salaries, but not such a great country for factory workers, and definitely not a great country for factories and warehouses.

So it wasn’t really a huge surprise that this week he has now said his plans have all fallen through and he is giving up on electric cars completely.  This article reports on the collapse in his plans.

But I have to disagree with the article’s claim “sales of electric cars are climbing rapidly”.  That’s absolutely not the case in the US.

All three Tesla models are in steady decline in terms of monthly sales compared to the same month last year, and the reason for their decline is not because of new competitors taking market share from them.  Other prominent new electric cars are failing to get any traction, and established cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt are either also in decline or struggling to hold on to their low numbers of monthly sales.

In September, Tesla S sales were less than one third the number they were in September last year, Tesla X sales were less than half, and even the Tesla 3 was down almost 15%.  Here’s a great tabulation of monthly sales data.

The underlying business case for electric cars seems unassailable – low maintenance, high performance, and astonishingly low operating costs per mile.  But even the modestly priced models (Tesla 3, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Bolt, or less well known cars such as the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia Nero EV) struggle to sell.  Meanwhile, Ford still hasn’t released a single all-battery powered vehicle, and Toyota continues to play with the no-future hydrogen fuel-cell concept, also with no all-battery cars at all.

I find the failure of electric cars to get more widespread support, both by manufacturers and purchasers, inexplicable.

A New Amazon Tablet – Much the Same as the Old One

My favorite tablet is the Amazon Fire HD 10.  Priced at a bargain $150, it has a great screen (10.1″ diagonal, 1920×1200), good battery life, and both a headphone jack and a Micro-SD card slot, making it ideally suited for loading up with music and movies (both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video allow you to download movies and watch them offline).  Its screen is much better than the smaller HD 8, making the HD 10 the best tablet choice for most of us.

I’ve had mine for several years, and have been wondering when Amazon would come out with a new model, and in what way it would be improved.  Well, the new model came out this week, and in almost every way – size, screen, weight, price – is identical to the model it is replacing.  The only notable differences are a USB-C rather than regular USB connector, a faster processor (of course, that’s par for the course with every new electronic device) and a couple more hours of battery life (12 instead of 10).  It also has a slightly improved front-facing camera, but both the front and back cameras remain disappointing.  Use your phone (of course) not your tablet for photo taking.

If you already have an HD 10, there’s no need to upgrade.  But if you don’t have an HD 10, there’s slightly more reason to get one now, although I’d be tempted to suggest you wait until Black Friday and hope for a discount which is almost certain to occur.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Is Saudi Arabia about to become the next big thing in international tourism?  We’d be doubtful on this point, but on the other hand, if they’re really serious about bringing in “normal” tourists, they probably might have an enormous promotional budget that would suck all the air away from other destinations and their promotion.

The country is steadily liberalizing its policies about accepting visitors, transitioning from being one of the ultimately most closed of all nations to visit, and now becoming almost normal.  Details here.

Two years behind schedule.  Yes, I’m talking about another Elon Musk business – his rocket business and its failure to meet its NASA contract specification for being able to send astronauts to/from the International Space Station.  Instead, Musk seems to be dreaming about Mars and other related rocket projects, while neglecting the present reality and obligations.  Here’s an article that suggests that NASA is getting a bit frustrated with the delays.

Twenty surreal attractions in the middle of nowhere?  Well, sort of, perhaps, but I’m sure New Zealand would be dismayed to see its very popular Waitomo Caves on the list.  (We’ll visit these wonderful caves in the pre-tour option for our Aurora Australis Adventure in March.)

Talking about lists, here’s a list of the 20 cleanest airlines in the world.  No US carriers make the list.

Yahoo might owe you some money as part of a class action/privacy breach settlement.  Check it out.

Lastly this week, a toilet on a plane so small that a woman got stuck in it.

And truly lastly this week, please do check out the New Zealand Aurora Australis Adventure tour (see the next article).  Remember, if you join by/on Monday, there’s a $100 per person early joining discount.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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